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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 17:17 GMT
Afghanistan's military stalemate
Opposition fighters in AFghanistan
The opposition has not managed a breakthrough
By Ian MacWilliam in Afghanistan

The remote town of Faizabad tucked away in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan's far north-east has become the new "capital" of the opposition since its stronghold of Taloqan fell to Taleban forces in September.

Ahmed Shah Massoud
Ahmed Shah Massoud: Main opposition commander
The hard-pressed people of Faizabad were preparing to become the next target of the advancing Taleban - but the arrival of the Afghan winter means they may escape this particular trial, at least until next spring.

The man still recognised by the United Nations as Afghanistan's president is Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, but the military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud is the key figure behind the opposition alliance fighting the Taleban.

After the Soviet-backed government fell, Professor Rabbani sat in Kabul as head of the Mujahideen government, with Massoud as his defence minister.

Massoud's strategy

Those days are now a distant memory.

Massoud says he will recapture Taloqan - but many observers say this could be difficult.

Afghanistan map
His forces are greatly outnumbered by the fighters available to the Taleban.

Although Massoud has been the most organised and resilient of Afghan commanders throughout the war, he is now largely confined to his original territorial base in the Panjshir Valley and Badakhshan province.

He is in no position to defeat the Taleban, who control 95% of the country.

"In the near future, the strategy is simply to impress upon the Taleban and their backers in Pakistan that there can be no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan," according to Anthony Davis, a correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly.

He says that Massoud's hope is that negotiations can take place and that after a period of some months, elections under UN supervision could take place in Afghanistan.

Seeking victory

However, recent Taleban advances suggest the Islamist militia still seeks a final military victory.

Opposition fighters
Defeating the Taleban is highly unlikely
According to Zalmy Khalilzad of the Rand Corporation in Washington, the military balance favours the Taleban.

"The question for the opposition is whether they can compensate for those advantages by gaining substantial outside support to redress the changes which have taken place. Unless they do so, I think the equation is likely to continue to favour the Taleban."

Ironically, Massoud's survival is now helped by military aid from his old enemies in Moscow, who fear any advance of the radical Taleban.

But the Taleban are also dependent on outside assistance. Pakistani assistance has certainly been one of the keys to the Taleban's fighting strength.

War weary

But Anthony Davis says they have been finding it increasingly difficult to find recruits among war-weary Afghans.

"According to current estimates, of the task force they have operating in the recent offensives in the north-east, up to one-third of that force of some 15,000-20,000 men is foreign."

Taleb fighter
The Taleban may be facing a manpower problem
He says they do not have enough Afghan recruits to fill the ranks and are depending to a very significant degree on Pakistani religious volunteers, Arab freelancers and, according to recent reports, even Pakistan army troops.

But while foreign involvement prolongs the Afghan conflict, the unresolved internal power struggle is the fundamental problem.

The Taleban see no need for compromise with the opposition.

Internal divisions

Their takeover of large parts of Afghanistan has proceeded as much by local defections as by outright military conquest, as local leaders have thrown in their lot with the dominant power.

Afghan conflicts are rarely fought in a hurry; but if the Taleban launch a spring offensive against Faizabad, and if Massoud is one day reduced to the status of a troublesome guerrilla leader in the remote mountains, the Taleban would then have to face the question of their own internal divisions.

In Afghanistan, power still comes from the barrel of a gun, but the Afghans are a people who have rarely tolerated oppression for long.

The Taleban will have to win the consent of the majority of Afghans if they are to avoid breaking into factions.

In the long term, this could be their most testing challenge.

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See also:

07 Aug 00 | South Asia
Civilians 'flee' Taleban advance
10 Jul 00 | South Asia
New fighting near Kabul
03 Aug 00 | South Asia
Taleban take northern town
30 Jul 00 | South Asia
Taleban push north past key town
29 Jul 00 | South Asia
Taleban slice opposition lifeline
01 Jul 00 | South Asia
Taleban fighters launch new offensive
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